It appears that hockey will return on January 13th, as the NHL and NHLPA have reached a tentative agreement to begin regular season play on that date.
Camps will open on January 3rd for all teams that qualified for the play-in round last summer, with the rest getting a few days more to prepare via a December 30th start date.
There will be no exhibition games, so teams will have to be creative with the way they run their camps to make sure everybody is up to speed as much as possible. In the case of the Leafs I would expect head coach Sheldon Keefe to run intra-squad scrimmage games again to get the competitive juices flowing. He did this leading up to their play-in series against Columbus and it obviously didn’t work, but when we talk about this management group it appears to be “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…… without changing anything….. because we were right the first time and you can’t tell us otherwise.” So, yes, lets hope it works this time around and the team begins the season on the right foot.
Things haven’t been ironed out as far as traveling within Canada goes. Different provinces have different quarantine regulations, which means provincial authorities will have to sign off on players flying in and playing hockey in short order. The plan is to have players on chartered flights and they won’t be allowed to leave their hotel, except to play, when on the road. If the NHL and provinces can’t find common ground then Edmonton could serve as a Hub city again, with all players entering a bubble, or the 7 Canadian teams could see themselves playing out the season in the United States. My guess is they’ll find common ground and Canadas teams will play on Canadian soil.
One thing that has interested me from the start was the talk of a taxi squad, or a group of players that would be allowed to travel with the team for call-up purposes, thus being able to avoid having to quarantine before playing with the NHL group. A 4-6 player taxi squad is being allowed, which means that a maximum of 29 players will travel with the team. A 3rd string goaltender is a requirement for the taxi squad. Lastly, players on the taxi squad will be treated like AHL players. They’ll receive AHL wages if they are on a 2-way contract and will have to pass through waivers in order to be placed on the squad.
This makes the signings of Aaron Dell and Michael Hutchinson much more clear in retrospect, as Aaron Dell will travel with the team (if he can pass through waivers), while Michael Hutchinson will join Joseph Woll in the AHL.
Here’s my prediction for the Leafs roster (lines and pairings are random):
Zach Hyman – Auston Matthews – Mitch Marner
Ilya Mikheyev – John Tavares – William Nylander
Jimmy Vesey – Alex Kerfoot – Wayne Simmonds
Nicholas Robertson – Joe Thornton – Jason Spezza
Morgan Rielly – T.J. Brodie
Jake Muzzin – Justin Holl
Travis Dermott – Zach Bogosian
Frederik Andersen/Jack Campbell
This gives the Leafs just over half a million in cap space, which will help them accrue space for a deadline acquisition if they choose to go that route at that time.
The taxi squad, in my opinion, will look like this:
Aaron Dell, Pierre Engvall, Alex Barabanov, Travis Boyd, Martin Marincin, Calle Rosen.
I think they choose to keep Marincin and Rosen with the big club in order to allow players such as Rasmus Sandin, Timothy Liljegren, Mac Hollowell, and Joseph Duszak the opportunity to lead the AHL Toronto Marlies for a season. This is assuming that the AHL has a season. It’s been very quiet around that league, but last we heard they had a tentative start date of February 5th. We’re also aware that both of Marincin and Rosen are favourites of the management and coaching staff, so we have to assume they’d have full faith in them if they were forced into a few games.
As for the rest, Aaron Dell, as previously stated, would be the required 3rd string goalie. This is assuming that he can pass through waivers, which is far from a guarantee. It should be of a particular worry now that Henrik Lundqvist retired without notice, leaving the Washington Capitals with just two goalies with any NHL experience. Ilya Samsonov, a 23 year old with just 26 NHL games under his belt, all played last season and Phoenix Copley, who has just 29 NHL games experience, none of which from last season and 27 of them resulting from a strong 2018-19 campaign, are those two goalies. Trotting out a tandem with 55 NHL games of combined experience might not be the way the Capitals want to start their season, even if Samsonov has great potential.
There are still a couple of goalies on the open market that could help a team that’s desperate enough at the position, they include Ryan Miller, Jimmy Howard, Cory Schneider and Craig Anderson. If the Capitals opt to pluck a goalie off waivers to fill the void and that goalie is Aaron Dell, then the Leafs could turn to one of these options as well. None are good, they’re simply available.
One possibility that hasn’t been broached is waiving Jack Campbell. If Aaron Dell outplays him in camp would the Leafs risk Campbells 1.65M contract? With so many teams losing money due to the COVID-19 pandemic, taking on 3.3M in salary owed over the next two years might not be high on most clubs to-do list. Just a thought worth discussing.
That leaves Pierre Engvall, whose 1.25M cap hit would likely allow him to pass through waivers, Travis Boyd, who is a solid depth player, and Alex Barabanov, who won’t require waivers and will likely have to stay with the team in some capacity to keep him from jumping ship and heading back to Russia. Either one of those players could beat Jimmy Vesey for a spot on the roster in my opinion.
The last thing I’d like to point out with the lineup revolves around Nick Robertson. If he doesn’t make the team out of camp he’ll have to be returned to the CHL due to an agreement between the CHL and NHL. I’m sure the Leafs would love to be able to add him to their taxi squad to keep him close to the team, because he’s just that close to being 100% NHL ready, if he isn’t there yet, but it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
So, what say you Leafs Nation? Am I far off on who makes the team/squad? Will players like Denis Malgin or Nic Petan beat out a veteran like Rosen or Boyd to hang around the team? Or are they better off honing their skills in the AHL still?
Let me know in the comments.